"There is magic here," said 25-year-old Dikla Delugathc, a regular visitor to this bargain-hunters' haven in Jaffa, one of Israel's -- and the world's -- oldest cities.
The magic of the Jaffa Flea Market derives from both its past and present. The market began as a small bazaar in the mid-19th century. It is a rare remnant of the old Middle Eastern way of life in this modern Jewish country. But the market is also a place where Jews and Muslims work side by side as neighbors and friends.
I visited the market this month on a trip sponsored by Israel's Ministry of Tourism. The agency brought a handful of journalists to the Jewish state in an effort to combat the current tourism slump, which had worsened since the war with Hezbollah this summer. Only 25,000 Americans visited Israel last month, representing a 25 percent drop from last year.
We had come to Jaffa, a port city in southern Tel Aviv, to explore its ancient history. Jaffa is about 4,000 years old, and the Bible mentions it as the port from which the prophet Jonah sailed before being swallowed by the whale. King Solomon transported through Jaffa the cedars he used to construct the Temple in Jerusalem.
Some say Jaffa derives from yafeh, Hebrew for beautiful; others say it comes from Noah's son Japhet, who, as legend has it, built the city after the Flood. The Jaffa Flea Market sits to the east of a clock tower in the city's center. It is open every day but Saturday from about 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Along the market's main street, Olei Zion, antique dealers sell furniture and rugs from hole-in-the-wall shops.
On this particular day, a group of old men played cards on the sidewalk; Jews wrapped in tallit and tefillin led afternoon prayers from a tapestry store; and a grifter slid cards around on a cardboard box, attempting to lure passersby into placing bets.
The market extends onto side streets and winds into covered alleys, or arcades, where shoppers walk through narrow passageways, navigating a sea of clothing, jewelry and trinkets.
Inside an arcade, Ronit Raz, 47, picked up a string of decorative bells and gave it a rattle.
The market "gives you a sense of traveling back in time," said Raz, who drove half an hour to Jaffa from her home near Kfar Saba.
A group of Delta flight attendants stood nearby, chatting about their purchases: a table runner and some pillow covers. A couple of the women sipped pomegranate juice purchased from a nearby drink stand, which blasted American music. (Of all the songs one might expect in the Holy Land, who would guess the Black Eyed Peas' sexy hit, "My Humps"?)
David Desire Dahan, a Jewish antique dealer, strolled through an outdoor square when a vendor solicited his advice.
"What is this?" the vendor asked in Hebrew, showing him a small silver plate. Dahan turned the plate upside down. "It's Mexican silver," he said.
Dahan recently opened a large furniture store at the market, where he had for sale a set of French chairs and a sofa from the time of Louis XIV and a $5,000 mother-of-pearl inlaid cabinet from Syria.
On a break from business, Dahan, 62, walked past the blankets piled with old watches and computer parts, through the sound of chitchat and the smell of cigarette smoke and incense.
Suddenly, his face lit up. Dahan walked over to a man in a black knit hat and thrust his arm around him.
"This," Dahan said, patting the Muslim man on the shoulder, "is one of my best friends."
Such scenes of religious co-existence are commonplace here. Jewish vendors wearing kippahs sit beside Israeli Arabs. They play cards together, joke with one another. One shop sells the traditional Arabic kaffiyeh headscarf; another sells Star of David pendants. Even observant Muslims and religious Jews live, work and play together in Jaffa.
In a carpet shop on Pinkas Ben-Yair Street, a religious Jew, Rami Sinay, had just finished putting on tefillin. Beside him stood his Muslim partner, Hussein Ali.
"We've known each other for 20 years," said Sinay, 27. "Here, Muslims and Jews have no problem," he added. "Because we live together in Jaffa, we know everybody's the son of God."
How to Bargain Effectively at an Israeli Flea Market Israeli antique dealer David Desire Dahan said he has traveled to Africa, Turkey, Russia, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and more in search of antiques. He claims to have once sold a Stradivarius cello to a museum for $1 million. Here are his tips:
- Talk to the person selling the goods. See if he's a good man, if you can trust him.
- Find an item that resembles something you own and ask how much it costs. You know how much you bought it for.
- Collect the same type of things, made from the same material, in the same time period. Then you'll have a beautiful collection at the end of your life.
- Buy silver or antique jewelry, not large, expensive items like furniture. Collect big things only if you have a big house and a big pocket.
- Don't argue with a salesman over the price, but do bargain. If a seller asks for $100, start negotiating at around $60. If you offer much less than the seller asks -- $20, for example -- it might be taken as an insult.
- Go with someone in the know, who speaks the language and is familiar with the flea market. When a seller sees a tourist, he typically asks for a higher price.
- Contact a seller in advance. If you're looking for a specific item, ask a seller whether he can find it for you. If you e-mail me about something you want, I'll find it. Give me two weeks, and I'll send you a picture and price by e-mail.